Divide and Rule

Australia admits more migrants than any other big Western country—but thanks to section 44(i) of our Constitution, many of them aren’t able to run for federal parliament (as mentioned here in August). I posted a few comments to a Metafilter thread about the latest High Court ruling about section 44(i) and dual-citizen MPs, several of whom (most prominently the deputy prime minister) now find themselves excluded from parliament.

The bar on dual citizens as MPs might make sense if you’re used to it, but it doesn’t if you aren’t; other countries in the Anglosphere don’t have it. I could become prime minister of the UK if I could convince enough people to vote for me. If my having divided loyalties were a problem for voters, it would sort itself out at the ballot box.

To me, the idea of having divided loyalties is in any case as silly as the idea that I’m required to choose one of my kids over the other, or one of my parents over the other. If historical circumstance forces me to make that choice by pitting my two countries against each other, then I’ll do so by physically locating myself in one or the other. If I’m not living in Australia, I can’t exactly run for parliament there. But if I move back (if, for example, my second country should engage in some monumental, unprecedented act of self-harm, bringing rampant xenophobia in its wake... hypothetically speaking, of course), I’ll be as Australian as I’ve always been.

Dual citizens add value to Australia, not subtract it, and they would do the same for parliament if we weren’t saddled with British imperial attitudes towards foreigners embedded in the Constitution. Section 44(i) is a product of the late 19th century: in those years all Australians were British subjects and only British subjects, so anybody else considered a British subject would have been fine under s44(i): having an allegiance to a foreign power meant you weren’t British, not that you weren’t Australian. British citizenship and Australian citizenship weren’t invented until 1948.

Section 44(i) wasn’t conceived in nationalist terms, then, but in imperialist terms; and either way, it was racist in effect. In 2017, being British is not a “race” in our popular understanding of that word. It’s not even belonging to a “nation” in some respects, given the conglomerate nature of the United Kingdom. Naturalised citizens like me can find a sense of belonging in that, knowing that we’re UK citizens and therefore “British” even when we aren’t English or Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish.

But the concept of Britishness is more than just nationalism; race is still a significant part of it. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t talk about Black British people or British Asians, while rarely labelling the majority “White British”—white people wouldn’t get to be the default. Culture is also part of it, such that naturalised citizens can never be wholly British in some people’s eyes because we weren’t born and raised here. Scottish nationalists also would argue that the domination of Britishness by the English, and the artificial nature of the construct (post-1707), make it even more exclusionary.

As someone who has lived in Scotland for sixteen years, and in recent years has lived through not one but two prolonged bouts of nationalism, first the IndyRef and then the EU Referendum and its aftermath, I find the line between nationalism and racism increasingly blurred. Once upon a time, when I was only Australian and had mostly only lived in Australia, I might have drawn a sharper distinction, but not any more.

Section 44(i) isn’t a product of the 2017 conception of Britishness; and in 1901, Britishness was even more of a racial construct. People proudly and uncritically spoke of the British race, and meant by it the people who had lived on this island for centuries. The notion of the “British subject” was far from inclusive. Although it was ostensibly based on allegiance to the crown, it was also strongly territorial, and was associated with laws that reinforced ethnic exclusion, such as those associated with the White Australia policy. We kid ourselves if we read s44(i) through some sort of context-free lens: it was a product of that time, of that imperial system and those imperial attitudes. It would never have been a perfect barrier to all non-White British people, but it was part of a system of laws and rules that were enough of a barrier to keep Australia (White) British. Some of the barriers have since been removed, but others remain.

At a time when we’re watching America face up to the racist underpinnings of its systems of government—to the fact that the effects of the Civil War never ended, and the reality that the Civil Rights movement is unfinished business—it’s crucial that we do the same. Nationalism is the window-dressing of racism. It may feel harmless to celebrate the Australian form of nationalism—I enjoyed the bicentenary well enough when I was 20, and used to observe Australia Day uncritically—but when we listen to the people who have been most affected by Australian nationalism and its imperial antecedents, the people who have lived in Australia for millennia, we know that it isn’t harmless. We (should) know that it harbours racism, just as the vote to leave the EU in Britain harboured racism. And those harmless old symbols of imperialism—the Union Jack in the corner of the flag, s44(i)—aren’t just keepsakes tucked away in a drawer. They’re continuing, public reminders of the exclusionary nature of our country’s foundation.

We recognised the problems with s44(i) for contemporary Australia long ago. A Senate committee recommended in 1981 that it be replaced with a simple requirement for Australian citizenship, and a 1997 House of Reps committee recommended the same. If we’d done it then, none of this current trouble would have arisen, and Australian politics would stand to benefit from the millions of Australians who have taken up dual citizenship elsewhere or were born into it; there would be one less reminder that the right to represent the people requires you to be one of the right kind of people.

Requiring that someone should simply renounce their dual citizenship if they want to run for Parliament is unreasonable. If they were born into it, you’re asking them to give up part of their birthright. If they acquired it later in life, you’re asking them to waste the time and money and considerable stress they spent doing so, and potentially to complicate their relationship with their own children. All of this, just to stand in an election that they might not win. That’s an enormous gamble, which most won’t take. Australia’s loss.

The Constitution is difficult to change, but it can be changed. The nonsensical situation of half a dozen MPs being kicked out on this basis might be enough of a spur to make that change. It would at least be worth a shot. Unfortunately, we would have to rely on MPs who by definition aren’t excluded by s44(i) to make the case, so I won’t hold my breath.

When I think about this issue, I reflect on the fact that I ruled myself out of Federal Parliament contention when I took up UK citizenship a decade ago. I highly doubt I’d ever have run, but you never know. Now I’d have to restrict myself to state politics, where I could use my divided loyalites to betray the interests of a subset of the Australian people rather than all of them. Fortunately, I could run in any state or territory, even though my primary identification is with one in particular. Which reminds me that the most influential politician in my home state in my lifetime moved there after spending his twenties living and working in Canberra, the Northern Territory and the UK. Thankfully, he never had to renounce his loyalty to his home state of New South Wales in order to run in Tasmania.

28 October 2017 · Politics